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Taking the Wrong View

Vietnam Veterans Memorial Visitors Center

The most distinctive feature of the U.S. Institute of Peace building will be its roof, which suggests a bird's wing.
The most distinctive feature of the U.S. Institute of Peace building will be its roof, which suggests a bird's wing. (U.S. Institute of Peace, via Associated Press)

If the Peace Institute is a relatively dignified case of architectural compromise, the Vietnam Veterans visitors center, which will be in its front yard, diagonally across the intersection of 23rd and Constitution, is riven with so many unfortunate compromises it's hard to see how an effective building can be constructed in the location chosen for it. The legislation that authorized the museum also included a change to the law governing the creation of new structures on the Mall -- and a declaration that the "great cross-axis of the Mall" is "a substantially completed work of civic art." So Washington got a long overdue statement on the sanctity of the Mall's open space and an unfortunate new project at the same time, a perversity of the legislative process rather like a homeowner who develops a passionate taste for conservationism the moment the paint is dry on his secluded new vacation home.

The 2003 authorizing legislation also requires the visitors center be placed underground, that it not disturb sightlines on the Mall or encroach on the memorial itself. But if advocates for the Mall were under the impression that it would be all but invisible, they were disabused of that assumption when architects for the Polshek Partnership gave an informational briefing to the NCPC.

"You are certainly going to see something," said Joseph Fleischer, one of the architects passing around three preliminary models of the structure.

All three designs include a long, inclined entrance ramp and a central courtyard designed to bring light into the subterranean structure and allow space for venting its heating and cooling system. Both will eat up open space and impede pedestrian traffic.

The architects of Polshek are also proposing the possibility of re-landscaping the entire site, adding what may be a seven-foot embankment. All of which raises important questions about the meaning of "underground" in the original legislation. A sunken courtyard may be "below grade" but it certainly isn't "underground" if there's no ground above it. And raising the landscape to better situate the building and its entranceway is a dubious interpretation of the authorizing legislation.

Throughout that meeting, architect James Polshek insisted that his firm would follow "the spirit of the law," which leaves open the possibility that they won't follow the letter of it. But the spirit of any law is open to interpretation, and the manifest willingness to fudge the legally mandated design criteria so early in the process is a disturbing sign of where things are going with this building. Unfortunately, the NCPC's own 2006 guidelines for the project could be interpreted to give Polshek some wiggle room on many of these critical issues.

Even worse, initial presentations of the exhibits slated for the visitors center are more than a little troubling. Designed by Ralph Applebaum Associates, a firm that specializes in museum and educational projects, the proposed substance of the visitors center feels very insubstantial. Electronic media walls will show pictures of the war dead, and give some cursory information about them. Broad themes of military service -- "loyalty, duty, respect, service, honor, integrity, courage" -- will give structure to the design. But this general homage to the military, which will include images of the fallen from other wars besides the Vietnam conflict, sounds like a lot of vitiated feel-good blather rather than anything particular to the very controversial war that divided the country a generation ago.

Which does a grave and insulting disservice to Maya Lin's memorial. The virtues of that structure -- its austere elegance, its compelling reticence on the war itself, its refusal to glorify or demean its subject matter -- lie in everything it doesn't say. But ever since Lin's design was made public in 1981, it has been subjected to efforts to subvert its integrity, to make explicit things that were meant to be abstract, and to give the memorial a traditional "viewpoint" on the subject of war. Jan C. Scruggs, the head of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, which is pushing the new visitors center, once showed such indifference to Lin's design that he was willing to compromise on even its most fundamental elements.

"My personal position was, put it above ground, make it white," he told The Post in 1982, after some veterans began arguing for a more traditional memorial. "I'm here to build a monument, not put a Rembrandt on the Mall."

Unfortunately that same cavalier attitude to good design lives on in the reckless pursuit of the new visitors center. When Lin's memorial was finished, the nation did, in fact, get something very like a Rembrandt on the Mall, and like a Rembrandt, it is self-sufficient and needs no further elaboration in a visitors center. The very idea of building a visitors center sets a damaging precedent for future expansionism. Which is not to say that there shouldn't be a museum or visitors center devoted to the Vietnam War, just not in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial and certainly not on the Mall.

Old Naval Observatory

There is probably no better place to watch the developments on this corner of the Mall than the hill on which the Old Naval Observatory is sited. For almost 50 years beginning in 1844, the elegantly proportioned observatory served the Navy as a site for astronomical research and a repository for charts and instruments. The two moons of Mars were discovered there in 1877. After the Naval Observatory moved farther northwest to the site that is now home to the vice president, the hill above the Kennedy Center hosted a hospital. The hospital buildings, begun in 1904, were designed by Ernest Flagg, who also designed the Corcoran Gallery.

The Peace Institute received its allotment from land (formerly a parking lot) that belonged to the Naval complex. And it is this hill, with exceptional views, easy access to the State Department and indeed, the whole of downtown, that will eventually host the headquarters for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Given the federal government's propensity for onerous security barriers, and given the particular sensitivity of the work done by the office for national intelligence, there is a fear that this site will become forever inaccessible to the public and that some of its historic buildings, especially the ones built by Flagg, might be neglected or demolished.

Although the Washington planning community isn't certain that the land transfer is definite, a spokesman for the intelligence directorate is clear on the matter.

"We will be taking that site; it's just a matter of when and what we do with it," says Trey Brown. The Navy says the transfer should be complete by September 2011, at which point the intelligence czar would inherit responsibility for the historic structures. Brown says the director's office understands the historic importance of the Naval Observatory building, but that it's too early to talk about what will happen to other structures on the hill, many of them more than 100 years old. The campus would likely provide office space for about 1,000 employees, but the work done by the office is primarily policy oriented, as opposed to the kind of data collection that might require the hill to be covered with forests of satellite dishes and communications towers.

Jan K. Herman, a historian with the Navy who is also the curator of the old observatory, isn't convinced by the government's assurances about the historic buildings he currently tends. Herman says that despite claims that there are no plans yet for how the hill will be used, he has seen an artist's rendering of its national intelligence reconfiguration -- which includes removal of some, and perhaps all, of Flagg's buildings.

"Someone is not telling you the truth," says Herman.

The transfer comes as the Department of Homeland Security is exploring a radical transformation of the old St. Elizabeths Hospital west campus, once a mental hospital on high ground across the Anacostia River. Like the St. Elizabeths site, the Naval Observatory hilltop is prime real estate blessed (or cursed, depending on your perspective) with extraordinary historic structures and phenomenal old trees. It has the feel of an isolated campus within the larger bustle of the city.

Long volumes have been written on the symbolism of Washington's urban topography. But not enough, perhaps, has been said about its landscape of irony, the way in which buildings also contradict one another, and send unintended messages. The Peace Institute will be built in the shadow of a new fortress of security and on land taken from the Navy; we remember our war dead not on hilltops with liberating views but in the shallows of what was once swampland; we build memorials and then fill them with strategic forgetfulness about the very thing they memorialize.

Right now, the landscape that lies on the northwest corner of our national Mall is mostly quiet. It will soon be a construction zone. And what gets built there may capture more about the complexity of our politics of public space than any of us would like to acknowledge.

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